It is a truth universally acknowledged: Many cats simply don’t like being held.
Growing up, my brothers and I always had cats. So we learned early that not all felines cuddle. Here are some possible explanations:
1. Cats are great believers in keeping themselves to themselves.
They like to mull over the whole interspecies friendship thing. “Getting acquainted with people is almost as touchy a problem for the cat as getting acquainted with another feline,” remarks Winifred Carriere in Cats, 24 hours a day (affiliate link).
“It is complicated because so many people do not understand the protocol of greeting a strange cat and take offense (or fright) if you suggest they take it easy. A cat is a formal creature who always wants to make the first gesture and only in his own good time.”
This means that you do not swoop down on a feline you’ve just met. And you certainly do not grab him or her. Most of us would not care to have another person do those things to us at the first meet-up. And those of us who do should probably examine that.
2. Some cats spook more easily than others.
Picking them up would terrify the kitty-crap out of them. So you have to be especially gentle and understanding with them.
My beloved Cricket was one such cat. So was Merlyn, our beautiful but ditzy tiger. Interaction with humans in general terrified them: Strange people (workmen, guests, anyone who wasn’t my son Zeke or me) sent them fleeing to the top of the pipes or cupboards in the cellar.
The Crickets and the Merlyns go in for the understated gestures. An affectionate scratch between the ears or just sitting with them in companionable silence — these things make them feel happier and more secure than being held.
Here’s a quick video of a cat who comically doesn’t want to be picked up:
3. Not all felines have been properly socialized.
If your cat didn’t have a lot of contact with people during its kittenhood, it’ll probably have some feral tendencies.
“A litter of kittens that is born in a cranny inaccessible to humans will hiss, when handled by humans, at 2 or 3 weeks of age,” according to The Cornell Book of the Cat. But kittens from another litter by the same mother, “if handled daily, will not react fearfully.”
My aunt made a point of going into the dairy barn to fuss with the new kittens, and it made a world of difference.
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4. Your cat met up with the wrong kind of humans in another lifetime.
“The cat, having sat upon a hot stove lid, will not sit upon a hot stove lid again,” observed famous cat lover Mark Twain. “But he won’t sit upon a cold stove lid either.” If your cat was abused before you adopted him or her, he or she won’t know the difference between a kind human and a cruel one.
Patience is key. Animals carry their traumas around with them the same as people do. You’ll need to take kitten steps.
5. Sometimes the circumstances are unusual.
Artist Julie Tichota of Angels Afoot was such a lover of cats that they appear in all her work frequently as angels. Not as cutesy greeting-card angels but as beautifully detailed, realistic-looking creatures who just happen to have wings.
Tichota, who also bred Maine Coons, suffered from myelofibrosis. When she died in December 1997, her friends took over the business and the care of her cats. Placing them was tricky, I was told, because they just weren’t used to being held: The artist had been too ill to pick them up, “so she didn’t. Basically, her days consisted of her lying in bed with the cats all around her.”
6. It’s a breed thing.
Maine Coons, for instance, are gentle, loving giants, but these cats don’t care much for being picked up. The same has held true with most of the Abyssinians I’ve known. Perhaps it has something to do with their active temperament.
Ragdolls are another story. They glory in hands-on treatment. “They let kids pick them up,” breeder Barbara McKee of Hemlock Trails Cattery once told me. The cats will, she added, “go limp in your arms when you pick them up, just like the dolls they’re named for.”
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